History on Display: That’s Ruff

Sometimes you stumble across something small at a museum that overshadows the museum’s larger purpose in your mind.

For instance, the only thing I remember about the historical museum in Galena, Illinois, is a half-smoked cigar that a child picked up after General Grant discarded it.  The boy evidently treasured it for years, handing it down for several generations until someone donated it to the museum.  Thirty years later, I can still work up a head of steam about the museum’s decision to exhibit that cigar.  What were they thinking?

I was just as distracted, though in a good way, by a single artifact in the Rubens’ House in Antwerp.  When the last detail of the house has vanished from my head, I’ll still remember the portefraes.*

I love 16th century portraits.  Flemish families. Jolly Dutch burghers.  Tough Tudor courtiers, and their softer Stewart relatives (technically 17th century).  I love the way those portraits give you a glimpse at the personalities of their subjects.  And I love the clothes, including the ruffs.  Over the course of the century, those ruffs get bigger and bigger.  By the end of the century, really fashionable people had to eat their soup with a 2-foot long spoon.  (Honest, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) * *

I’ve always assumed those ruffs were held up with starch.   Wrong.

The largest ruffs, known as cartwheel ruffs, were supported by a metal frame that went around the wearer’s neck like, well,  a cartwheel around an axle.  The frames were covered with silver wire to make them more attractive, but not all the silver wire in the world could have made them comfortable.

Gives a whole new meaning to stiff-necked, doesn’t it?


* Also known as supportasses  and  underproppers.  The things you learn during a Google search.

** I don’t know about you, but give me a 2-foot long spoon and a bowl of soup and I can guarantee you I’ll have soup down my front.


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